Spike in deaths in Australia from COVID illnesses, not vaccine
CLAIM: Australia is seeing its sharpest rise in deaths in 80 years because of the coronavirus vaccine.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. While a recent analysis found that the country saw a higher than expected number of deaths in 2022, it also concluded coronavirus vaccines weren’t the cause. Government officials and experts in Australia concur, saying the rise in deaths is largely the result of COVID-19 infections, not vaccine-related deaths.
THE FACTS: Social media users are blaming the coronavirus vaccine on a sharp rise in deaths in Australia last year. Many are sharing an article from a website known to run stories based on conspiracy theories.
“Fully Vaccinated Australians Dying At Levels Not Seen For 80 Years – Doctors Baffled,” reads the story’s headline.
“Doctors are baffled???????,” commented one Instagram user on a widely shared post that included a screenshot of the article. “Not very good doctors then………its the jabs.”
The article cites an analysis released earlier this month that found Australia had nearly 12% more deaths than expected in 2022 -- the highest year-over-year rise since World War II in the 1940s.
The Actuaries Institute, which is an association for the actuarial profession in Australia, said in its report that it had predicted there would be 172,000 deaths in the country last year, but actual deaths ended up closer to 192,000.
But the report doesn’t claim that coronavirus vaccines were the cause of the higher than expected number of deaths, as some social media users suggest. In fact, the institute concludes the shot had a “negligible” effect.
The report notes that the Australian government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, which regulates vaccines, has confirmed 14 cases in which a person’s death was linked to vaccination, out of nearly 1,000 potential cases reported to the agency.
Instead, the institute attributes roughly two-thirds of the 20,000 additional, or “excess,” deaths, to the coronavirus pandemic itself.
The report found more than half (about 10,300) were directly due to COVID-19 illness. In roughly 2,900 others, the virus was a contributing but not the primary cause of death.
Delays in emergency and routine care for non-COVID illnesses were also significant factors in the rise in deaths, the group said.
Pressure on the nation’s healthcare system likely led to people “not getting the care they require, either as they avoid seeking help, or their care is not as timely as it might have been in pre-pandemic times,” the report stated.
Spokespersons for the institute didn’t respond to emails seeking comment this week, but Australian government officials and researchers not affiliated with the group agreed with its assessment.
“If vaccines were responsible -- and COVID wasn’t -- in Australia, we should clearly see that 2021 was the biggest year for mortality,” James Trauer, a biostatistics professor at Monash University in Melbourne, wrote in an email. “Because that year we administered the greatest number of vaccines and had relatively little COVID. Clearly that’s not the pattern in Australia.”
Jason Donohoe, a spokesperson for the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care, concurred, adding that the agency’s ongoing review of the vaccine has so far found that the inoculation led to death only in “extremely rare cases.” Most deaths after vaccination, he said, were caused by an underlying disease or condition.
“There’s no credible evidence to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines have contributed to excess deaths,” Donohoe wrote in an email.
Daniel Demant, a public health lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, noted that deaths -- particularly those due to influenza and pneumonia -- were unusually low in 2020 due to lockdowns and other restrictions the country imposed to slow the spread of the virus.
But as those restrictions were eased in the latter part of 2021, deaths from COVID-19 began to rise as a country was impacted by the delta variant of the virus.
This is what’s known as “mortality deficit,”or the idea that some of the recent deaths are among people who would have otherwise died earlier had pandemic restrictions not limited the spread of disease, he explained.
“These were deaths that were expected in 2020 but didn’t happen,” Demant wrote in an email. “These deaths then happened in 2021 and 2022.”
Similar misinformation has spread on social media regarding a rise in deaths in nearby New Zealand last year.
But as appears to be the case in Australia, government officials and experts there said the deaths were largely attributed to the country’s first true wave of COVID-19 infections following a nearly two-year lockdown.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.